Martin Jetpack Still Far From “Practical”

Well, after much fanfare and suspense, the supposedly revolutionary Martin jetpack was unveiled in front of a large and curious crowd at AirVenture Oshkosh on Tuesday.  After watching the videos and reading the details, I have to say I’m underwhelmed. Yes, it flew, but only a few feet off the ground, and it appeared to require two ground handlers to help keep it steady, or at least for safety reasons, to keep it from wondering into the crowd. As I suspected, there isn’t any radical breakthrough in aerospace technology in this VTOL (Vertical Take Off & Landing) device. (I’m going to use the generic VTOL because many people will argue what the term “jetpack” really means.)  It appears to be similar to the SoloTrek VTOL device that was attempted several years ago by a small company in California, now known as Trek Aerospace. The SoloTrek even had government backing from NASA and the U.S. Army, but after several years of development, never flew further than a few feet off the ground, and even at that, was usually tethered to a crane. Like the SoloTrek, the Martin jetpack uses a conventional internal combustion engine driving two small rotating blades, or ducted fans, to provide lift. As I speculated, this VTOL is also not “backpack” size, and weighs almost 250 pounds. It is basically built around a stand or platform that you strap into before you can fly it. Not exactly the comic book fantasy of popping a jetpack out of the trunk of your car, strapping it to your back, and zooming into the sky. At a projected price of 100K, it also seems a little excessive for it’svery limited performance. I could buy a nice, practical light aircraftfor that amount of cash.

While I commend Martin for his skill and perseverance in pursing his dream of a practical jetpack, I just wish that companies like this would wait until they have a flying machine that is pretty much a final design before hyping it to the general public. I’ve seen too many companies promising the next great flying vehicle (Can you say Moller SkyCar?). They string folks along for years that it is “almost ready for production”, then fail to deliver, disappointing many people. You cry wolf too many times, and people won’t take you seriously anymore. (I admire the way the Wright brothers did it: they performed their research in private for years, and only revealed their aircraft to the world when they felt they had solved the problems of practical, controlled flight.) Unfortunately, I guess the cost to develop just about any type of air vehicle these days requires large amounts of cash.  So companies will release preliminary details well before the vehicle design is finalized to attract investors and allow them to continue development. What you as an investor or potential owner have to do is really study the product and the company to determine if they will ever deliver what they promise.

One final note. After reading about my skepticism on his jetpack in a previous blog entry, Mr. Martin offered to let me fly his device. I have to say after what I have seen, I’ll pass on your offer, Mr. Martin. To paraphrase an old flying adage, don’tfly higher than you are willing to fall.  Successfully flying it to much higher altitudes wouldn’t change my mind either, as it wouldexceed my personal comfort level for flying. (If you go to the Martinweb site, they touch on the subject of degree of risk people are willing to take.) Even with a ballisticparachute, I’m thinking there would be a part of the flight envelope close to theground where the chute could not be deployed quickly enough to stopyour fall before you hit the ground. I’ll let someone else be the test pilot on this one. I hate to disappoint the dreamers, but you’re still going to have to wait a long time for that comic book fantasy jetpack to arrive.

Largest U.S. Airshow Kicks Off This Week In Oshkosh, Wisconsin

What is arguably the largest airshow in the U.S., if not in the world, (based on number of aircraft attending), starts on Monday, July 28, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Known as AirVenture 2008, the large gathering of aviation enthusiasts is run by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), an organization devoted to promoting owner-built light aircraft. AirVenture (known just as “Oshkosh” for many years, and still referred to by that name by many pilots) would be considered THE aerospace Mecca by most pilots – a site that you must make a pilgrimage to at least once in your life. In fact many attendees come from all over the world, some of them even flying their light aircraft to Oshkosh from Europe or South America. For a full seven days, you can immerse yourself in all things aviation (and also space, since NASA has their own pavilion).  While the emphasis is on light aircraft, you can also see a large collection of restored antique airplanes, plus old and new military planes. AirVenture probably is as close as we get to a national airshow in the U.S. But it is quite unlike the large international airshows held annually at either Paris, France or Farnborough, U.K.. Those shows emphasize the big players in commercial and military aerospace such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Airbus, etc. Instead, AirVenture is geared towards the average folk in aviation: the people who like to build and fly their own plane, not only to save money, but just for the pure fun of it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t your share of commercial light plane manufacturers, like Cirrus, Cessna and Piper, with displays at Airventure. There are hundreds of aviation vendor displays, inside and out, plus daily airshows, technical forums, a great aerospace museum right on the grounds, and even activities for kids.

Total attendance typically runs more than 700,000 over the seven days, plus thousands of planes that fly into Whitman Field, located about 100 miles north of Chicago. While the numbers continued to grow in the 90s, setting new records each year, recent years have seen a downturn in total attendance. This is probably due to economic conditions in the U.S., plus the general decline in the U.S. pilot population. I suspect attendance to be down even more this year, especially among pilots flying in, due to the recent spike in oil that has driven aviation gas close to $6 per gallon in the U.S.

I attended my first Oshkosh in 1979 while taking summer courses at Purdue University in Indiana. A classmate mentioned this great  grassroots-style airshow up in Wisconsin featuring homebuilt airplanes, and being an aerospace engineering student, it sounded like just the place for a weekend visit. We drove up in his old Rambler and camped right on the airshow grounds in what is known as Camp Scholler. I was blown away by the breadth and scope of aircraft attending, and was also impressed by how well the event was run, with clean grounds and friendly volunteers. I joined EAA on the spot, and I’ve been a member ever since. Even though I can’t go every year, I’ve flown and driven to Oshkosh on numerous occasions. Unfortunately I can’t make it this year, but with the EAA hosting a great web site for AirVenture, you can follow much of what is going on through audio, video and pictures. Their are usually announcements of new aircraft and products every year at Oshkosh, some truly groundbreaking, some more hype that substance. (It remains to be seen which category the Martin jetpack I wrote about early will fit in.) As the week goes on, I’ll try to provide my take on some of these new announcements, so check back to The Aerospace Agenda throughout the week for my thoughts on what is happening at AirVenture 2008.

Favorite Aerospace Museums – Golden Age Air Museum

This latest blog entry on my favorite aerospace museums covers the other end of the spectrum from the professional, high-tech aerospace museums I’ve written about before. This little gem of a museum, called the Golden Age Air Museum, is located in the ridge-lined countryside of central Pennsylvania. Golden Age is only open during the summer months, and is what is known as a “flying” museum. This means that most of the planes in their collection are kept in airworthy condition, and brought out at various times throughout the season for aerial demonstrations. In this case, “Golden Age” generally refers to the early years of flying in the U.S., from roughly 1917 to the start of World War II. Some of the aircraft at the museum include biplane classics such as a 1930 Great Lakes, a 1926 Winstead Special and a 1929 Waco GXE that is used to give rides above the green, rolling farmland. There are also some early monoplane light aircraft at the museum that are routinely flown. These include a 1932 Taylor E-2 Cub and a 1936 Aeronca C-3 Master.

The entire museum is located on Grimes Airfield, which consists of a single, smooth grass runway, and three hangars built to look like those used to shelter planes during the 20’s and 30’s. Adding to the nostalgic look of that era are a restored farmhouse that has a small office and some inside displays, a couple of vintage automobiles and a replica light beacon tower like those used to guide airmail pilots to their destinations before the use of electronics for air navigation. One of the hangars is used for restoration work, and you can see the latest aircraft being diligently restored to flying condition. The last time I was there, they were working on a 1917 Curtis JN4D Jenny biplane.  Most of the airframe had been restored, but the fabric had not yet been installed, so you could see the beautifully crafted wood that makes up most of the Jenny’s main structure.

The museum holds special events during the season, including several fly-ins where you can pitch your tent next to your airplane and enjoy evening cookouts and entertainment. If you can only attend one special event, I would recommend the museum’s Flying Circus airshow, usually held in August. It is a recreation of a 1920’s airshow, including aerobatics, barnstorming skills, and a little Keystone cops comedy thrown in, all performed by museum volunteers dressed in vintage Roaring 20’s garb.

As I pilot, I really enjoyed flying my Citabria 7ECA to the Golden Age Museum during late summer.  At that time of the season, the corn lining both sides of the runway is tall enough to block your view of the rest of the complex until you taxi to an opening near the end of the runway. As you emerge from the “corn canyon” you feel like you have flown back in time as you approach the retro hangars with biplanes neatly arranged outside. The nearby forested ridge of the blue mountains that towers over the airfield probably looks the same as it did more than 80 years ago, when most of these planes were still in the dawn of their flying careers.

If you are not a pilot, Golden Age Air Museum can easily be reached by car. It is located near Bethel, PA, just off I-78, the major interstate highway between Harrisburg and Allentown, PA. The entry fee is only five bucks for adults and three bucks for kids, a real bargain for a fun trip back into aviation history.

Revolutionary Jetpack to be Unveiled at Oshkosh?

Here we go again. Another company is claiming to have finally designed a practical flying jetpack, and is planning to unveil it to the world at the annual flying Mecca known as AirVenture Oshkosh on July 29.  The company, Martin Jetpack, is being coy at this point, releasing very few details about what they are calling “The Worlds First Practical Jetpack“. They have produced a cryptic video which talks about man’s dreams of soaring through the skies with a personal jetpack, and then teases with some clipped views of what I assume are various parts of the jetpack. You never do get to see a complete view of the vehicle, so it’s hard to tell how big it is compared to previous jetpacks that have flown.  However, some of the information released does permit me to speculate about what we may see. 

As I wrote in a previous blog entry about jetpacks, while numerous designs have flown, none has ever evolved beyond being an aviation oddity. The primary failing of the jetpack has always been its very short flight duration, measured not in hours, or even minutes, but only in seconds. Martin is claiming that their jetpack will have a flight duration 100 times greater than the Bell Rocket belt flown in the 60’s. Since the Bell Rocket belt could only fly for about 20 seconds, that would mean the Martin jetpack can fly for 2000 seconds, or almost 30 minutes. Flying at a conservative speed of about 20 mph, that would produce a flight distance of at least 10 miles.  Quite a spectacular claim considering the best rocket belts could only fly a few hundred yards.  Also, Martin claims their jetpack will meet FAA ultralight requirements, which indicates it could have an empty weight of up to 254 pounds. This would mean it could be more of a flying platform than something you could strap to your back.  It is also said to run on regular gasoline, implying it uses some type of turbine or jet engine instead of a rocket engine. While jet engines are much more fuel efficient than rocket engines, you would still require quite a bit of fuel to lift a human and keep them airborne for 30 minutes. This need for 30 minutes of  fuel would also increase the size of the jetpack. Then there are the questions of flight stability, safety and cost, all of which can have a big impact on whether a jetpack is practical.

So I still remain very skeptical on whether this company is really going to produce a “practical jetpack“.  If you want to convince me otherwise, then release the engineering and performance data, and also let me see it fly – don’t just take the wraps off a snazzy looking full-scale mock up and say it will be flying “real soon”.  I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what appears at Oshkosh, Wisconsin on July 29.